The rise of coliving spaces is bringing digital nomadism to the next level
Digital nomadism first sprung up as an answer to the question, “You can work anywhere you have internet, right? So, why are you still here?” This was the very question that a friend had asked Pieter Levels — of “12 startups in 12 months” fame — and got him working his way across Asia.
For this fast-growing group of people, coworking spaces are popular spots because they offer all the essentials necessary for getting work done — a stable wifi connection, steady flow of electricity, serendipitous encounters with a community of like-minded people, and in some cases, free-flow caffeinated beverages.
But that’s not enough for this new generation of workers. Lately, there has been an increase in demand for spaces in which, above and beyond just working together, digital nomads can live with each other as well. These new enclaves are dubbed coliving spaces.
“Staying in hotels isn’t optimal, and remote workers need a lot of specific stuff, like fast internet and services, so they don’t get distracted from working,” says Levels. Coliving spaces would ideally be able to bring the two worlds together.
Coliving isn’t exactly a new concept. It became popular in late-2013 — especially in expensive places like the Bay Area — as aspiring entrepreneurs looking to stretch their money as far as possible thought it wise to squeeze together in group houses.
Most digital nomads are, however, not doing it for the sake of saving dollars and cents. For them, it’s simply a matter of convenience, and Levels sees it as a natural progression of the nomadic lifestyle, especially as more and more people are jumping on the remote work bandwagon. For the mainstream crowd, though, flying to the other side of the world alone and staying there for the long haul can be a rather intimidating notion.
According to Levels, it helps to have some kind of community already in place wherever they are going. While such communities used to be limited to coworking spaces or online forums, now coliving spaces offer an alternative and attractive all-in-one option.
“People want to meet other people, and so living and working together is not a weird thought,” he explains. “It sounds a bit like the commune or kibbutz-type housing we had over 50 years ago. That’s coming back, I think.”
Another reason why coliving options might be more appealing to those looking to travel beyond Southeast Asia is because of the exorbitant prices of housing, especially in places like Europe and the US. The rationale even applies to those not traveling to Southeast Asia. Levels adds:
Living costs have reached record highs in 2014 in most big cities in the West. Many people have become unemployed due to automation replacing jobs, and the recession that doesn’t seem to end in many places. So here you have a lot of smart people without jobs, they’re starting to try generate an income online. So they learn how to make websites, mobile apps, do online marketing, and so on. And meanwhile their rent is going up like crazy. So the next step is, ‘Hey, I can do this in cheaper places with a better quality of life,’ and then it flips.
A low-cost network of nomad houses
One of the projects looking to provide coliving opportunities is Nomad House. It was launched earlier last week by founder Arthur Itey — a 24-year-old French digital nomad who is currently based in Bangkok — and has already received over 200 sign-ups in the meantime.
Nomad House aspires to eventually become a low-cost network of houses around the world for nomads to live and work in, though it has just one house available right now: Project Bali.
Born in Paris, Itey started off as a web developer working for an agency, but quit after six months as he wanted to be his own boss. He spent the next two years doing freelance projects, but again, he felt that “something [was] still missing.”
“So I moved to Montreal — my first nomad city — and I met other entrepreneurs, got new clients, and tried to experiment with new ways to build startups,” he says. With one unsuccessful startup under his belt, Itey moved to Southeast Asia, and met Levels in Bangkok. It was through his conversations with Levels that Itey got the idea to start Nomad House.
Itey sees his encounter and subsequent collaboration with Levels as an example of what could happen when digital nomads spend all of their time eating, drinking, and working together:
Look at how many people changed their lifestyles to become nomads just because Pieter Levels made it. Imagine a marketer, a developer, and a designer in the same house — they can help each other and produce better products, and they can share experiences to push new nomads to create their own products too.
Interested parties will pay a monthly fee to become a resident of these houses. To get a feel of how much it would cost, the fee — stated on its website — to be part of Project Bali is US$525. None of the houses have been confirmed yet, though Itey guarantees that there will be “awesome properties in awesome places” with “no bunk-beds, couches, or cots.”
He won’t be the only one who will be finding and furnishing these houses. Itey explains that it is based on a “franchise model,” where anyone who adheres to a certain set of requirements can set up their own coliving house. He aims to have at least five houses across the world within the next six months.
Itey is however quick to emphasize that Nomad House is currently a minimum viable product (MVP), so “it could change during the next few months.”
A one-stop haven across three continents
At the other end of the spectrum, there’s Caravanserai. The name, according to its website, alludes to “inclusive palaces along the ancient silk road,” which is apt given that residents will need to pay a higher-than-average fee of US$1,600 per month to have access to any of its properties across three continents. At the moment, founder Bruno Haid has three destinations in mind: Mexico City, Lisbon, and Ubud.
Haid, who has been working on startup ideas since he was 17 years old, took inspiration from a coliving community for art and technology creators in San Francisco called 20Missions:
While interesting, it never felt like it had the right ingredients yet. Then last summer, I was running a small product owner event in Vienna, and there was this guy who had been active in the Balinese nomad community. We went through different ideas, and suddenly the subscription aspect came. Right then and there, everything clicked and made sense.
Compared to the expensive living costs of staying in New York or London, the coliving provider certainly makes for a cheaper option. However, for the bootstrapping, cost-conscious digital nomad and entrepreneur, the sum might turn them off regardless.
Still, Caravanserai makes no apologies for the hefty price tag. “We are strongly biased towards this group, and fully aware that there are much cheaper options, places where there might be a few more parties or better suited if you just want to get away from it all,” it says on its website.
“At the end of the day, our product is for the peace-of-mind of a slightly older target group — early thirties, couples, and so on,” Haid explains. “Our customer is more the designer from east London, financial columnist, or remote developer from San Francisco. Just the lost opportunity cost of spending a month searching for and verifying accommodations is more than enough to justify the price difference.”
Those willing to make the investment will find that their stay will be extremely comfortable. Here are some things that Caravanserai residents can look forward to: a king-sized bed, cleaning services, high-speed internet, an entertainment room, and a fitness and yoga area.
Back in 2013, when Levels was just starting out as a newbie remote worker, spaces like these were a mere pipe dream, and most people still refused to take digital nomads seriously. Now, of course, things are very different.
“Right now we’re seeing the remote work and digital nomad movement go mainstream,” he says. “I’ve been a digital nomad since early 2013, and it had a big stigma back then of, ‘Oh you’re just having holiday all the time and cheating the system.’ That’s changing fast into, ‘This is a better alternative to leading my life.’”
Today, Levels is leading the charge to make digital nomadism into a lifestyle that one can seriously consider pursuing. Under the banner of Nomad List, he has launched several remote working-centered initiatives which have attracted a lot of attention. The concept of coliving, Levels believes, will catch on quickly vis-a-vis the mainstream adoption of digital nomadism.
And he’s all ready for the floodgates to open. His latest project, called StartupRetreats, aims to be the Airbnb for such coliving spaces, allowing interested parties to browse through several options and book through its website. It will be the eighth out of 12 startups Levels aims to launch in a year.
Put all the pieces together, and it’s not difficult to see that digital nomadism is becoming more and more accessible to the general public. While the concept of working on-the-go used to raise a lot of legitimate questions, many of them sound more like excuses today, since resources and answers can be found at the click of a button.
Originally published at www.techinasia.com on February 23, 2015.